- “Primordial and Gelatinous”? Civil Society in Imperial Russia
E. Iu. Kazakova-Apkarimova, Formirovanie grazhdanskogo obshchestva: Gorodskie soslovnye korporatsii i obshchestvennye organizatsii na Srednem Urale (vtoraia polovina XIX–nachalo XX v.) (The Formation of Civil Society: Urban Estate Corporations and Public Organizations in the Central Urals Region in the Second Half of the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th Centuries). 290 pp., illus., tables. Ekaterinburg: RAN-Ural´skoe otdelenie, Institut istorii i arkheologii, 2008. ISBN 5769116705.
Bianka Pietrov-Ennker (Pietrow-Ennker) and Galina Ul´ianova, eds., Grazhdanskaia identichnost´ i sfera grazhdanskoi deiatel´nosti v Rossiiskoi imperii: Vtoraia polovina XIX–nachalo XX veka (Civic Identity and the Sphere of Civic Activity in the Russian Empire in the Second Half of the 19th and the Beginning of the 20th Centuries). 302 pp. Moscow: Rosspen, 2007. ISBN-13 978-5824308624.
Historians have been looking for a civil society in imperial Russia’s past for at least two decades. Though hardly as protracted or romantic as the quest [End Page 705] by European navigators for a Northwest Passage, the effort to find a viable public sphere in an autocratic state has inspired expeditions of discovery and revealed new features of the Russian historical landscape. Like these explorers, historians have generally agreed on what it is they seek: a public sphere distinct from the state, the economy, and private life, where Russians formed autonomous associations, social relationships, and communication networks in order to “represent interests, deliberate matters of public concern, and voice opinions,” in Joseph Bradley’s definition (7).1 But there is considerable disagreement among historians of civil society about what they have discovered, or whether the object they seek could even exist in autocratic Russia. In one camp are optimists such as Bradley, whose well-written, thoroughly researched new book argues that the evidence of a viable and growing civil society in imperial Russia is strong and irrefutable. On the other side are skeptics such as Lutz Häfner, whose essay in Grazhdanskaia identichnost´ i sfera grazhdanskoi deiatel´nosti v Rossiiskoi imperii criticizes fellow historians who “assume the existence [of civil society] a priori” and “evaluate every effort of society toward emancipation from state tutelage as a sign of civil society” (43–46). While the Ekaterinburg historian Elena Kazakova-Apkarimova finds a thriving civil society in the sparsely populated region of the central Urals, Brian Horowitz emphasizes impediments and disharmony in his history of the largest and most successful Jewish voluntary association in imperial Russia. The books reviewed here illustrate diverse approaches to the history of civil society while providing insights into four central issues: the role of the state; Russian exceptionalism; the social and economic prerequisites of civil society; and finally, the significance of civil society to the country’s historical development.
Historians began their quest for a Russian public sphere distinct from illegal political parties and radical movements comparatively recently. As Bradley recounts in his introduction, most of us who studied the history of tsarist Russia in the 1970s learned the version that Antonio Gramsci neatly [End Page 706] summed up in an often quoted remark: “In Russia the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous.”2 Written in the 1920s not about tsarist-era civil society per se but about Lenin and Trotskii, Gramsci’s comment is an example of the kind of offhand comparisons once regularly made between Russian society and the seemingly normative social structures of the West. For many years the very fact of the 1917 revolution, with its attendant collapse of liberal alternatives and their middle-class base, seemed to present prima facie evidence for Gramsci’s characterization. The imperative to explain the revolution still dominated the study of imperial Russia and topped the agenda set for graduate students of our generation. The term “civil society” was little known and rarely...